Rituals for Charming a Disordered Brain

Rituals for Charming a Disordered Brain, by Janina Renee

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

Because advances in neurology have revealed how peoples' brains can have very different wiring, we have a better understanding of how we can have different styles of processing information and making sense of the world. From my own point of view as a ritualist, I can appreciate how mental quirks influence an interest in ritual and the types of rituals one might perform. At the same time, greater knowledge of how our brains work (and sometimes misbehave) has spurred my experimentation with new approaches to ritual healing, to better manage learning disabilities and other cognitive disorders.

In my own case, I am a person with Asperger's Syndrome (described as an autism spectrum disorder). Among other things, this disorder causes delays and distortions in sensory processing functions, weird shifts of focus, difficulty in shifting between inner and outer world demands, and an inability to multi-task. Asperger's people are also known to go in for ritualistic actions, and are often fascinated with patterns and visual imagery. I was unaware of all this at the time I wrote my first book, Tarot Spells, which is about arranging Tarot images in geometrical patterns that make an affirmative statement about different things that one wants to manifest in one's life. However, as a consequence of my struggles raising a child who also suffers from Asperger's, my fourth book, Tarot for a New Generation, features a chapter on how young people can use Tarot imagery for help in their studies; this includes tips for getting a handle on certain learning disabilities.

My new book, By Candlelight: Rites for Celebration, Blessing, and Prayer, presents a variety of ways that a person can interact with a single candle. While all sorts of people will find these rituals helpful, those of us whose "bad wiring" creates difficulties with energy levels, concentration, and anxiety can especially make use of ritual actions for reclaiming control of our days and our lives. Therefore, By Candlelight includes ritual suggestions on using colored candles for fast energy, creative will, mental power, regenerative energy, and energy modulation. Also featured are rituals for guidance, trusting the process of life, managing stress, anger, and shame, exerting will power and overcoming bad habits; refocusing after disruptions; boosting the effectiveness of medical supplements; health and healing; meditation; spiritual clarity; and much more.

While all ritual communicates to the Unconscious Mind, I am now working on rituals addressed directly to the brain's components and functions. I am seeking to do this by applying traditional magical formulas and folk healing techniques to some common mental and emotional problems. I emphasize that these rituals are only for persons with relatively mild problems, and that persons with severe mental and emotional disorders should seek professional medical help.

The ancient "doctrine of correspondences," which is common to many systems of folk magic, can be applied to the amygdala, which is a critical component in the brain's stress circuitry. The doctrine of correspondences holds that things that are connected with each other, or resemble each other, or are similar in some other way are able to act upon each other through a vibrational resonance or "secret sympathies." They also act upon our spirits. We have all recognized things that affect us psychologically, so we can see how—by conjoining objects or symbols of objects that have correspondences—we can provide the mind with striking images for effecting changes in consciousness. There are many ways that those of us with stress and anxiety can use creative visualizations to influence the amygdala (which is so named because it is almond-shaped, the Greek root of the name referring to an almond). Actually, although it is common practice to use the singular term, there are two amygdalae, one in each hemisphere, in the anterior extremity of the temporal lobes. These neurostructures are part of the limbic system, the emotionally reactive section of the brain.

When your amygdala receives perceived threat warnings from the senses via the thalamus, it switches on the "fight or flight" response, flooding the bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisol to raise your blood pressure; slow down your digestion and immune system; and otherwise prep your body to run fast or fight hard. This is important in survival situations. But unfortunately, to get along in modern society, some of us encounter stressors daily that we can neither fight nor flee from—as in the case of service persons who have to deal with irritable customers, or individuals who have to cooperate with difficult bosses or coworkers. In such cases, stress hormones are continually being released into the bloodstream, without an avenue of release. Also, in people with certain disorders—including general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, autism, and various phobias—the amygdala can be in a continual state of arousal, reacting to even mild stress or stimulation as a threat situation.

To reprogram the amygdala, then, we can send it different corresponding images of well being to help it feel safe and secure, with no need to overreact to things. Fortunately, for those of us who like visualizations and "material affirmations," there are plenty of almond-type products that can assist in reinforcing this idea. For example, you could start the morning by massaging your hands and face with sweet almond oil, or use soap, shaving cream, or other skin care products that include almond oil as an ingredient, while thinking about your almond-shaped amygdalae and beaming them messages of love and care. Though the oil of almond is unscented, it is used in aromatherapy as a base for essential oils, so you might want to add some lavender, palmarosa, tangerine, rose geranium, ylang ylang, or other emotionally reassuring fragrances to it, and apply a bit to your hands and temples whenever you feel a bit stressed.

If you need to take a break, relax with a cup of almond tea, or some tea or cocoa to which you can add some almond extract. If your diet allows, treat yourself to some almond cookies, a slice of pannetone (Italian holiday bread with fruit and almonds), or even a piece of marzipan. You could also nibble on Jordan almonds, which are sugar coated, in pastel colors, and symbolize the mix of the sweet and bitter in human life, (reminding your Unconscious to take these things in stride). At Greek and Italian weddings and other types of celebrations, Jordan almonds are given as favors, wrapped in tulle and tied with ribbon; they are called "koufeta" or "confetti." In some other wedding traditions, almond paste is used in the cake, or the bride presents favors containing five almonds to represent health, wealth, happiness, fertility, and long life. As a treat for your friends, you could offer them some sugared almonds with the blessing "health to your amygdala," in the same way that Greeks and Turks say "health to your mouth" when good words are spoken.

As far as words go, orally or mentally repeating certain words can exert a psychological influence. I find this to be the case with "amygdala" which is euphonious for its sound and rhythm. In keeping with the magical tradition that reciting the name of a thing gives you power over it, repeating "amygdala, amygdala, amygdala ..." has a soothing effect. Alternatively, you could make a charm by reciting a line of anagrams, "Glada May, Magda Lay, Malda Gay, Glama Day," because the unconscious mind enjoys puzzles.

Another counter charm might be to recite the words "tend and befriend," (especially where such actions would be a good strategy for your situation). It has been discovered that in some people, the impulse to tend-and-befriend is a more adaptive response that overrides the fight-or-flight reflex. In such cases, the brain produces more of the well-being hormone, oxytocin. As things can inform each other in complementary ways, perhaps thinking about tending and befriending will also produce more oxytocin.

Here is another example of how folk magic can be applied to the biological causes of some troublesome thoughts and behaviors:

People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, as well as some chronic worriers who experience general anxiety disorder, are tormented by a brain that keeps repeating the same disturbing thoughts. Often, these alarming thoughts compel repetitive, ritualistic behaviors. In the more extreme cases, these obsessions interfere with normal life and work, as would be the case with persons who have to wash their hands every few minutes, (because their brains keep signaling a false warning about germs and dirt). However, there are also people who experience obsessive symptoms only sporadically, or at a lower level, so many of them go unnoticed. In their book Shadow Syndromes, [1] John J. Ratey and Catherine Johnson cite "scanners," persons who obsess over social faux pas, relationships, health issues, etc., as examples of persons who are not normally recognized as being obsessive-compulsive, yet their repetitive thoughts do inflict mental anguish.

According to the theories of Jeffrey M. Schwartz (as described by Ratey and Johnson), obsessive-compulsive symptoms are caused by brain-lock due to a malfunction of three brain sections.[2] The primary culprit is the caudate nucleus, which regulates the flow of thought. In normal people, the caudate nucleus has a "gating mechanism" for suppressing distracting thoughts when an issue has been adequately dealt with. Also implicated are the orbital cortex, which "houses the brain's error-detection circuit," and the cingulate gyrus, which inflicts the mental pain that accompanies the disturbing thoughts. Ironically, the cingulate gyrus is also associated with maternal feelings. (This is a simplified account of what goes on, and there are some other entities that come into play, such as the thalamus, which oversees a lot of brain reactions.)

Because these brain elements have been identified, it is possible to personify them in the sort of healing imagery that is used in traditional "narrative charm" formulas. Narrative charms are wide spread in Europe, and typically tell a little story involving a divine being who encounters troublesome entities, then charges them to change their ways, (or sometimes the narrator encounters healing entities, who are dispatched on an errand of mercy). The following adaptation employs "the Gracious One" as a traditional epithet for Hermes/Mercury, who is the messenger of the gods, and represents mental functions in astrology. He encounters the troublesome brain elements, personified as three ladies, whom he addresses by anagrammatical names. The descriptions of these ladies also brings in some brain imagery. (A person with a more imaginative grasp of brain functions and anatomy could probably elaborate on these descriptions.)

Suppose that "Jane Doe" is a person who can't stop rehashing memories of social gaffes. When the obsessive thoughts come over her, she could recite the following incantation. Indeed, If Jane has some willing friends, she could arrange to have them say it over her or even set up a ritual space, dress up in costumes, and work this incantation into a dramatic performance for her benefit.

As the Gracious One ran a winding road,
he met three ladies by an open gate,
three women dressed in gray.
"Ladies, what have you been doing?"
The first lady held a siren and said,
"My name is Carol Ibex Trot.
I've been sounding the alarm,
alerting Jane Doe to silly gaffes,
to things that are not important."
The second lady tossed her pony tail; she said,
"My name is Lucca Sue Denuta.
I've kept Jane's bad thoughts flowing,
because I haven't turned off the siren,
I haven't closed the gate.
Jane has been reliving her every fault
over and over again."
The third lady archly replied,
"My name is Aggy Lutin Cruse.
I've been making Jane cringe, and giving her pain,
pounding her heart, and wrenching her stomach.
I've put her through the emotional wringer."
The Gracious One extended his staff and said,
"Ladies, you must do right by Jane."
To the first lady he said,
"Carol Ibex Trot, be well and do well!
Sound no alarms for needless things.
Let enough be enough."
To the second lady he said,
"Lucca Sue Denuta, be well and do well!
Turn off the false alarm and shut the gate.
Direct Jane's thoughts to useful things only."
To the third lady he said,
"Aggy Lutin Cruse, be well and do well!
Be a nurturing mother to Jane.
Let Jane be filled with peace and comfort."
The ladies consented, they all agreed,
"We now do right by Jane."
So they turned off the alarm, they closed the gate,
and Jane feels peace and comfort.

This incantation can be customized for other types of obsessive fixations by changing the dialogue to fit the symptoms in question. It can also be adapted to different religious orientations. In fact, I modeled this version after the prekantes (lengthy, detailed healing incantations) of Sephardic Jewish women; prekantes often feature "Elijah the prophet, may he be remembered for good" as the central figure. [3] Similar forms are found in Spanish and Portuguese ensalmos, and in old Germanic and Pennsylvania Dutch charms, and may variously involve Jesus, the Blessed Virgin, St. Peter or Paul, and others as the divine helpers—and there are older versions, such as the Merseburg charms, which bring in some of the old gods. Many narrative charms are a lot shorter, (and the 2004 Wicca Almanac, features a five-line version of my OCD charm, as part of an article on "Spell Breaking Insights into Shadow Syndromes.")

Use of such charms does not guarantee that anxieties and obsessions will go away entirely, but by repeating them on a daily or as-needed basis, the undesirable thoughts can be considerably muted. Even if nagging thoughts start coming back, you might find them less strenuous and less painful. One doesn't want to shut these functions down completely, because they can be life-savers when working properly; however, repeating a charm when irrational fears well up can instruct your Unconscious as to which sort of thoughts are unproductive and harmful.

To remind yourself that obsessive thoughts are the product of naughty brain bits, and to make them more visible so you can recognize them for what they are and where they come from, you could also find three little figurines to represent Carol, Lucca, and Aggy, and place them on a home altar as a way of honoring the times when they are functioning correctly, while also exhorting them to look after you properly.

By the way, it is interesting to note that charms that involve imagery, riddles, and symbolic actions and objects resemble techniques used in some innovative schools of medical hypnosis. One can find many other parallels between folk healing and hypnosis.

There is obviously a lot more that could be done in adapting a great variety of traditional charms to malfunctioning body parts or brain modules. Also, many different folk magic techniques can be applied even when the specific area of the brain (or disease entity) is not known, just by finding a way to personify and speak to the general problem. And because different people respond to different symbolic actions and images, the possibilities for creative ritualists to build large repertoires of healing techniques are practically endless.

1) See John J. Ratey's and Catherine Johnson's book, Shadow Syndromes: Recognizing and Coping with the Hidden Psychological Disorders that Can Influence Your Behavior and Silently Determine the Course of Your Life. (New York: Pantheon, 1997) 290-307.

2) Ratey and Johnson, 308-13.

3) Prekante specimens can be found in Ritual Medical Lore of Sephardic Jewish Women: Sweetening the Spirits, Healing the Sick by Isaac Jack Levy and Rosemary Levy Zumwalt. (Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 2002.)

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2007. All rights reserved.